Captain Community Resource Paramedic Nicole Picknell, left, and South County Fire Assistant Chief Shaughn Maxwell stand together at Fire Station 15 on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Captain Community Resource Paramedic Nicole Picknell, left, and South County Fire Assistant Chief Shaughn Maxwell stand together at Fire Station 15 on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

To help frequent 911 callers, South County expands paramedic program

Community paramedics based in Lynnwood find long-term solutions for chronic problems. The program will grow with nearly $1 million.

LYNNWOOD — Not all calls to 911 are for an immediate medical emergency.

For some dialers, it’s a call for long-term help because they suffer frequent falls or need a caretaker. Others have chronic mental health conditions. Some need food or a place to live.

South County Fire responds to about 100 calls daily — and many don’t require an emergency room trip, Assistant Chief Shaughn Maxwell said.

Currently, a team of five community resource paramedics out of Fire Station 15 in Lynnwood helps frequent callers find long-term solutions.

South County Fire announced this month the program will expand, thanks to almost $1 million in outside funding. The fire agency plans to hire one more paramedic and at least three community health care workers. The program is set to staff six paramedics, with four working 24-hour shifts on a rotation.

The team will serve nearly 300,000 residents across southwest Snohomish County.

A nearly $500,000 grant from the Verdant Health Commission will help employ the new paramedics. A $455,000 contract with North Sound Accountable Community of Health, in partnership with Medicare and Medicaid, will go toward hiring the community health care workers, who will help assess needs and schedule follow-up appointments.

The program’s impact goes beyond the individual. It has reduced emergency room visits by half, Maxwell said, and allows firefighters to focus on emergencies, such as heart attacks, fires and car crashes.

“You’ve really helped hundreds of people by helping that one,” he said.

The help is needed. Capt. Nicole Picknell and her team of paramedics visit up to 200 at-risk callers a month to identify issues causing multiple emergency calls. They perform medical assessments and home safety surveys, then coordinate the next steps: housing, transportation, in-home care, food and behavioral health services.

“You name it, our team tries to figure it out,” Picknell said.

For example, the team helped one man whose medication was denied for three days because of a mix-up with his insurance number.

In another case, they took five months to prove an unhoused man who had run-ins with the police was suffering cognitive decline from dementia or a stroke.

“He’s safe in a senior facility now,” Picknell said.

She remembered one woman who called for help at least five times per day because she needed safer housing.

“We were able to get her into an adult family home, and she hasn’t called in 2½ years,” Picknell said.

Lisa Edwards, superintendent of the Verdant Health Commission, considers this work an “essential service.”

“We realize the huge demand for community resource paramedics and the important role they play in bridging the gap between people and social services,” she said.

Once someone receives help from community resource paramedics, their calls to 911 are reduced by at least half, according to data collected since the program began in 2014.

“We had one person call 80 times in a year,” Maxwell said. “We could really help them with just a few simple connections.”

The program has assisted more than 1,700 people this year, Picknell said, tripling last year. The paramedics partner with police, social services and hospitals. A new paramedic position from the program is set to be stationed at Swedish Edmonds. The team has contracted with Compass Health social workers in the past.

Since Picknell’s team often de-escalates situations, she is looking forward to bringing on community health care workers who have experiences similar to the people they help.

“They can relate to the person and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, too. I have had addiction’ or ‘I have lived on the streets,’” she said. “That’s very powerful.”

People have flown in from all over the country to ride along with South County Fire’s community paramedics to see how it’s done, Maxwell said.

But there’s one big question.

“How do you fund it?” he said. “Nobody wants to pay for it. It’s everybody’s problem, so it’s nobody’s problem.”

Unlike hospitals, the paramedic program can’t rely on insurance reimbursements. They’ve been “lucky” to get the support they’ve had so far, Maxwell said, but the need is growing.

Some federal and state options could help. A federal pilot program has paid participating fire agencies for transporting or providing treatment for Medicare or Medicaid clients, but it’s set to end this year. In 2019, Washington began offering reimbursements to fire agencies for providing some services to Medicaid clients.

The Verdant Health Commission hosted a fundraising event last week to connect South County Fire and other services with more funding sources. The organization hopes leaders in Lynnwood, Brier, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds — whose residents are benefiting — would pitch in as well, Edwards said.

South County Fire’s neighboring fire agencies don’t have community resource paramedics, Picknell said. She hopes that will change.

“I think in the future, more help will come from fire stations,” she said.

The pandemic revealed how the fire station never stops, Maxwell said.

“911 is the safety net for America,” he said. “We’re always there.”

Sydney Jackson: 425-339-3430; sydney.jackson@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @_sydneyajackson.

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